Big Shots: Temples and Icons of Thai Buddhism

Later on this week:

MarkontheMap heads into the hill tribes of Northern Thailand

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Quickpost: The Hidden Lagoon of Railay

Have you ever skimmed through a travel guidebook, honed in on the pictures section, and picked your destination?  Isn’t it funny how those spots are often the toughest, most far flung areas to get to?  It’s as if they’re showing us these images to say, “look, we got the picture so you don’t have too.”  The bottom of the photo references a page number, so you flip through the book and find out the hard truth – going there is “not recommended,” “seasonal,” “for the extremely adventurous,” or “only accessible with a guide if the weather has been good.”  But, if you’re like me, you go anyways.

Thais pointed me in the right direction, but Westerners warned me not to go.  From the overly comfortable beach town of Ao Nang, I caught a traditional longtail boat to the isolated isthmus of Railay.  Popular with rock climbing enthusiasts, Railay is an outcrop cut off from the mainland by massive limestone cliffs which are pocketed with caverns.  At the far end of the isthmus lay an eye-shaped cliff with an emerald green lagoon deep within its iris.  This was my destination – the place in the picture in the center section of the Thailand Beaches and Islands guidebook, the place they warned against going.

Departing the rocking, wooden boat at Ao Railay (west), I trekked across the flat, palm-lined center to Ao Railay (east).  Along the way, black-faced monkeys blocked my path.  By the looks of things, they’d been raiding the rubbish bins and were unperturbed by my presence in the middle of their family brawl.

Thanks to its isolation, Railey felt more like an island than an extension of the mainland. It’s car-less township edged up against the mangrove-lined beachlet of Ao  Railay (east).  Small up-market resorts and Thai cookeries beckoned vacationing yuppies, capitalizing on the shore’s rugged, palm-shaded mystique.

To reach the lagoon, I crossed back to the west side at the far end of the beach at Ao Railay (east).  On the other side of the isthmus, Phra Nang Cave loomed over the west coast’s most mesmerizing strip of sand.  But, I would stop halfway next to a slick, dangling rope resting on a muddy cliff.  An inconspicuous wooden plaque assured me that this was indeed the route, so I swapped sandals for boots and snagged the mud-soaked rope to begin my ascent.

I could have paid to go rock climbing nearby, have an instructor, and harness up in some nut-crunching apparatus.  Instead, I was relying on roots, rocks, and ragged ropes as well as the memory of glossy guidebook photo to heave myself uphill.  The relief I felt as I crest the top was instantly squashed upon realizing that this was no hilltop lagoon.  No, the lagoon was hidden twice as far down into the core of this conical hunk of karst.

Scrambling down a staircase of three sheer 20m drops, my heart pounded into my head.  I was now leading an expedition of four other tourists and it was with my word that they would proceed over each hurdle.  Arms and legs akimbo, I spider crawled down the wet rocks riddled with waterfalls until the emerald iris below swallowed me whole.

Floating on the thick pillow of murky green water, I stared up through the fan-leafed bushes towards the grey sky above.  My white clothes, draped over a bulging rock, appeared coffee-brown, stained in patterns of woven rope and printed hand.  Perched on a rock near the vertical entrance to the lagoon, I reached for my camera.  Yet, no matter what position I found myself in I could not capture the grandeur of the scene.  Through the lens of my camera, the lagoon may as well have been a pond in Florida.

Perhaps, the camera sensed my frustration.  After a few lackluster shots, the lens froze up and broke irreparably.  I never got the shot I came for.  But, I made it to the place in the picture.  Half of the fun of these photo sections is picking your destination.  The other half is pointing and bragging about it after you’ve returned.

Shake Your Booty for Buddha

The flickering flames of a thousand dreams floated further as a dozen balloons speckled the sky with red infinity.  The kathoey (ladyboys) had long ago thrust their way off the stage they shared with the dance-crazed school kids, the “sea gypsies” had come out of their isolated villages and the whole island was running amuck on moon-lit Pattaya beach.  As I sat cross-legged in the sand on the small island of Ko Lipe with two Thai massage girls (one of which was born a boy), I was reminded that this was Loi Krathong, a Buddhist holiday – a religious holiday unlike any other I’d ever celebrated.

Every November on the night of the proper full moon, this Buddhist holiday is celebrated in honor of the water goddess to thank her for the gift of life.  Reading about Loi Krathong before arriving in Thailand, I eagerly awaited witnessing the country’s “most beautiful religious holiday.”  Though, I did not expect to participate.  Five girls from the open-air massage parlor by my beachfront bungalow changed that.

To get to Ko Lipe, I caught an overnight train from Kuala Lumpur to the Thai border and switched platforms the next morning for the last 55 kilometers to the provincial capital of Hat Yai.  More like an extension of Malaysia, southern Thailand’s Muslim majority has been at odds with the government for decades.  Frequent protests and occasional violent acts don’t make this the safest region to travel.  Yet, it was in Hat Yai that I would catch my bus to the famed Andaman Coast.

Hat Yai was a sprawling trash heap of urban decay.  Greeted at the train station by armed guards with AK47s, hawkers soon swarmed in and spun me around in circles, simultaneously pointing in different directions when asked a question.  Half built/half abandoned buildings teeming with carnivorous street dogs filled me with a nervous sadness, playing on my Western insecurities.

I was relieved to spend the night two hours west at Pak Bara, a modest beach town popular with Thai holidaymakers.  Watching the sun set along the amusement-lined beach I was put to ease.  My eyes fixed on a mobile cotton-candy vendor as his happy silhouette wobbled along the horizon from pink to tangerine.  As the sun popped into the sky the next morning, I wizzed away from the mainland and into the islands of Ko Tarutao National Park.

En route to Ko Lipe, I spent two nights on the mountainous jungle island of Ko Tarutao.  Formerly home to one of Thailand’s most notorious prisons, the convicts (along with their guards) had infamously abandoned the place to become the pirates of the Straits of Melaka.  Now, it’s the kind of untamed wilderness where they film Survivor (2002).  Daredevil monkeys vastly outnumber humans as they leap from the treetops above and power is only available from sunset to sunrise.  More an island for exploration than lazing, it was easy to spend hours along on a wild beach gazing at the hornbills flying above… Now, I was gazing at the gem blue sea of Ko Lipe and the beachfront massage girls with whom I’d maintained an ongoing nonverbal dialogue.

By nonverbal dialogue, I mean to say that for no apparent reason they had been laughing at me for days.  The simple act of reading a book on my porch would bring about a fresh round of giggles and while we shared congenial smiles, we never spoke.  On the third day, they had abandoned the massage area and gathered in front of my porch by a low table under the shade of a palm tree sorting piles of leaves and flowers.  Curious what they were creating, I moseyed over and broke the silence.

They giggled, “Loi Krathong… Making for tonight!”  The girls gestured for me to join them so I sat on my knees in the sand as the older girl grabbed a small machete, chopped off a section of banana tree, and handed it to me.   All five of them were in varying stages of constructing small, lotus-shaped baskets, covering the round trunk in an origami of folded banana leaf.  My loose interpretation of their perfectly geometric folds amused them.  I was doing it all wrong.  After adorning my basket with flowers, incense, and a candle, they left it floating in water to prepare it for the evening’s celebration. The lopsided, raggedy basket I’d produced was later passed amongst the local community, evoking repeated laughter.  All afternoon, their fingers pointed in my direction and I returned a defeated smile.

The population center of Ko Tarutao National Park, Ko Lipe is a small A-shaped island in the far south of Thailand’s Andaman Coast.  Traditional longboats spurt across the pier-less bays ushering in new entrants above cities of coral.  Making a notable impression on the tourist trail, Ko Lipe is on the verge of “being discovered.”  Its three coral-rimmed beaches are blooming into a smaller version of overdeveloped Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi.  Escaping park protection due to its indigenous “sea gypsy” community, Ko Lipe’s narrow dirt roads are abuzz with construction.  A hippy, in-the-know traveler vibe abounds in the sea-drift-decorated bars and bungalows and Thai rastas run the show.

The entire island (save a few hardworking resort workers and five friendly massage ladies) was at the elementary school for the Loi Krathong celebration.  As I arrived, a group of schoolgirls were having a dance-off on the balloon-rimmed stage.  What ensued can be summed up in two words: Buddha and Booty.  From my squat under a table of prize-winning banana baskets, I watched as kids of all ages took to the stage to shake their booties for Buddha.  The wildest, most raunchy booty shakers were crowned the winners.  They’d prance out on their victory walk, slap their butt, and then clasp their hands in prayer, bowing to the audience.  When the contest was over, the Ladyboys (Thailand’s third sex), took over for a predictably bawdy routine.  The audience (and I) was in tears with laughter.  In Thailand, this is family entertainment and this is religious observance.

As the show ended, we raced to the beach to light our candles, burn our incense, and set our boats to the sea.  Noticing that my creation was an unkempt heap of leaf scraps, a Thai from Bangkok placed half of his wildflowers onto my basket in a decorative disguise.  His grandmother made the elaborate, tiered basket he carried and he had some flare to spare.  Upgraded and ready for its journey, I set the basket in the sea and watched as it joined the masses.  Each basket departed carrying a bit of its owner (some fingernails or strands of hair) as well as a thousand thanks to the water goddess for the gift of life.

When I arrived back at my bungalow on Pattaya Beach, the massage girls were just getting off of work.  They had changed from their drab rags into sparking dresses and were waiting for me to send their baskets afloat.  They drank double-sized Chang Beer, flirted, and apologized for their broken English.  I knew they were not attracted to me but the idea of something I represented so I turned the attention back to the afternoon’s creations.  They walked knee deep into the green glow of the moonlit sea and set their sparkling baskets adrift to form a twinkling trail of light in the rippled water.

So often in resort towns we see the workers but not the people.  On Ko Lipe, it was nice to see the workers as people doing both familiar and unfamiliar people things.  When I woke up the next morning, the “sea gypsies” spurt across the water in their longtail boats, the Thai rastas were serving coffees to their Western guests, and the five giggling massage girls were back in their rags by the beach.  The friend and fellow merrymaker became the worker again.  Yet, for one night, we all gathered together to create, wish, offer, and dance in the universal spotlight of the pock-faced moon.  We gathered together to shake our booties for Buddha.